Michael James - Partner of Spring Line: Shoe Last Maker
What is Spring Line and its history?
Spring Line is a shoe last maker based in Northampton. Unfortunately, we are now England’s only surviving shoe last maker.
In the early 80s, a company called Mobbs-Miller was one of the largest last makers in the world. Based in Northampton, they were buying up their competitors, but two guys called Ken Tipping and Bill Sanderson decided they didn’t want to work for Mobbs-Miller and decided to set up on their own.
Although Mobbs-Miller had factories across the UK, forests in Canada and were the first to open a factory in Taiwan, they struggled to shrink in line with the declining shoe industry.
Since 1982, Spring Line has grown steadily but has managed to remain a small company.
All our designs are still made by hand. We supply bulk plastic lasts mainly for the UK market and initial lasts for UK companies who manufacture abroad.
Our bespoke shoe lasts are still carved by hand from wood using mainly hornbeam or beech.
We also make wooded shoe trees from maple and beech which supply around the worldwide.
We are proud to have members of staff who have been with us for twenty to thirty years. In fact, we also have a couple who have worked with us since day one back in 1982.
We are now seeing younger men wanting to learn our trade which gives us hope for the future.
Today, our business makes 50/50 lasts and trees, and 20-30% development.
We are proud to still supply the Northampton shoe trade as they are such quality brands.
When and how did you join Spring Line?
I began working for Spring Line in 1983 when the company was one year old. I was sent by the Youth Training Scheme and stayed ever since.
Over the years I have worked in all positions in the factory, but because I have good hand-eye skills, I ended up in the model department. It can take four to five years to master the ability to hone a last by hand from a block of wood. I then became a partner in Spring Line twenty years ago.
What have been the main changes in the industry over the last few decades?
Going back further, the UK was the world’s supplier of shoes from the 1880s to 1950s. Northampton was not the only shoe area. There was also Leicestershire, Kendall, Somerset, Norwich and Rossendale in Lancashire.
In the early 80s, one Northampton shoe maker was making 40,000 pairs a week, while Griggs made 13 million pairs a year.
Unfortunately, a lot of suppliers took their manufacturing abroad and the industry rapidly shrank.
Sizing has also changed. 34 years ago, the standard women’s width size was C. Today it is D. The average shoe size was 4 and now it is 6. For men, the average size was 8 and today it is 10.
Has there been a highpoint in your career?
There have been quite a few but I can honestly say, meeting Prince Charles during his recent visit to Tricker’s was incredible. Two days later, I was invited to his home at Clarence House, to measure him for a brand-new pair of Tricker’s shoes.